Seeking peace: puzzle vs. mystery

In this month’s Smithsonian Magazine, former Vice-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council Gregory F. Treverton writes about an interesting distinction between approaching a situation as a puzzle or a mystery. A puzzle is something that requires additional information to solve, such as how many warheads the USSR had and what were their capabilities. A mystery, on the other hand, is something in which the truth is present but obscured, often by too much information, such as the 9/11 plot. He notes that solving a crime is a puzzle, but preventing a crime is a mystery.

Approaching conflict can be viewed similarly: I see preventing a conflict from breaking out as a mystery, trying to determine what of the available information can help diffuse the rising conflict. But, much like solving a crime once it has been committed, once the fighting breaks out, it becomes more like a puzzle. This is in large part because in an active conflict, national dialog narrows: it becomes focused on the fighting (and rationalizations for it) and not the underlying issues.

To understand why there is fighting, it is necessary to look beyond the battlefield to the inter- and intra-group dynamics that caused and continue to support the underlying conflict. My first rule of conflict analysis is, “A war is never about what the two sides say it’s about.” And a successful peace strategy cannot be created without understanding what drives the conflict. That means gathering information that may not be readily available.

Making peace successfully, much like making war successfully, requires intelligence gathering.  That doesn’t mean peacemakers need to be (or hire) spies, although on-the-ground infomation gathering has been a useful tool in my work.  But it does mean that we cannot solve a conflict by relying on what the combatants and/or the media tell us.  We’ve got to do our own research, sifting information available not only from combatants and media, but from eyewitnesses and academics.  For we must create a paradigm that fully explains the underlying conflict before we can ever hope to end the fighting.

(Cross-posted at